Lord of the Flies

“Fly-fishing is a way of being in good places very quietly, with a pleasant purpose you can pursue with intentness and graceful tools.”

September 1981By Comments

Those of us who love angling well enough to feel, as the angler Tolstoy put it, proud of being able to care for such a stupid occupation are not necessarily much like one another. Not only are there infinite numbers of kinds of fish in the world, inhabiting many different types of water, but the techniques used to snag them with a bent piece of metal on the end of a string are quite various as well. Thus when someone tells you, as someone seems often to do, “I like fishing,” you may know a little more about him or her than you did before, but not really very much.

By preference, one who fishes with hook and line may be a Hemingswayesque troller of huge marlin baits across the bosom of the wine-dark Gulf Stream, a trotliner after catfish in the depths of the somnolent Brazos, a puristical whipper of tiny artificial flies toward trout in mountain brooks, a cane-pole philosopher who elects to sit on a beer cooler beside still waters and regard a red and white float as it bobs, the trendy owner of a swivel-seated bass boat in which he and thousands of bucks’ worth of high-tech gear gun about on Corps of Engineers reservoirs, or any number of other things. Because, though there must be some people around to whom the pursuit of just about any species of fish, by whatever method and in whatever setting, is an undifferentiated delight, most of us brethren of the angle, if brethren we really are, come in time to think of two or three or four sorts of fishing as really worth our while, and even these we rand severely as to the satisfaction they afford us.

What kinds of opportunities one finds are part of the matter too. Expensive struggles with mighty billfish from the deck of a blue-water cruiser, for instance, are not for the disadvantaged or the land-locked. Nor do the choosy trout of cool rushing northern waters loom large in the angling of those of us who live on the Texas prairies, not unless we save up all our fishing urge and energy and cash for occasional trouting vacations in the high country, as some do. As a matter of fact, if I myself could get northwest more often or could stand not fishing at all during the intervals between, I can imagine waiting around like that also.

This is because trout are prime fly-rod fish, and along with many thousands of other individuals, I am an addicted fly-fisherman, though not expert or even notably pure in my adherence to the practice. That is to say, if definition is needed, I esteem most highly that form of angling in which a lure is propelled toward a fishy spot not by its own heft, as in bait-casting and spinning, but as the small and nearly weightless business end of an arrangement consisting of a long flexible rod, a length of relatively heavy slick-finished line that is rolled through the air like the forward section of a bullwhip, and a thin-tipped leader of translucent material (once silkworm gut but now nearly always nylon monofilament) whose near-invisibility is intended to make the fly seem a separate edible creature floating along the water or drifting or darting beneath its surface. The fly reel, a simple affair ordinarily, is used only for storage of line not in use and for playing large fish that make runs, whereas in bait-casting and spinning the reel is the central piece of tackle, a complex precision mechanism that feeds out line to a weighted lure hurtling stonelike toward its goal, and practically plays fish on its own. If these differences seem picayune to you, I assure you they don’t look that way to impassioned practitioners.

At any rate, trout — real freshwater trout of several species, along with some of their anadromous cousins the salmon – are the supreme fly-rod quarry. Even trophy specimens get much of their sustenance from small insects, crustaceans, and minnows, which can be simulated with creations of feather and hair and fur and tinsel, light enough to be laid out with a delicate rod and a tapered line and a gossamer leader across the cold flowing waters where trout most typically thrive. They are selective also for the most part, trout, and relatively hard to dupe, so that when you manage to dupe one the accomplishment appears more solid than with other fish, at least to us fly-rod types.

This fishing has attracted thoughtful minds for centuries. A fairly voluminous literature, of which I’ve read only a small part, tracing from Dame Juliana Berners and Izaak Walton down through such Victorian lyricists as Lord Grey of Fallodon and into the verbose present, lends to it a traditional, exact, tackle-puttering, current-studying, entomological ritualism that for bookish fold like me adds much to the quiet delight of taking trout or not taking them, for that matter: the studious ritual becomes in part its own excuse for being, the scenery is usually superb, the wading and casting forestall monotony, and most of the other fly-fishermen you run across are kindred souls, if only in the drift and tint of their enthusiasm. IT is a way of being in good places very quietly, with a pleasant purpose that you can pursue with intentness and graceful tools or can abandon from time to time to sit and look around at sky and water and birds and hills.

Yes, I agree that the ritual in extreme form can be ridiculous, and for many years I’ve resisted becoming obsessed with it and have sometimes succeeded, especially when I wasn’t living anywhere near trout. But all ritual is ridiculous at times, and most of us mortals seem to be condemned to seek our own forms of it. As to why some of us should choose this particular fussy form known as fly-fishing, I can give no logical answer, which is not astonishing since few things that human beings endow with ritual weight have much to do with logic anyhow. If it is snobbishly absurd, and it is, to believe that taking fish with a fly rod is somehow superior to taking them a bit more mechanically with bait-casting or spinning tackle, it is clearly just about as absurd to believe that there is any more merit in taking them with a hook, however presented, than there is in netting them, or dynamiting them, or electrocuting them, all of which will get you more fish if getting fish is the point. But the ultimate illogic or absurdity is that getting fish is not the point, not really. The manner of doing it is.

My own absorption with angling dates back into the dimness of babyhood, and I have no bright-colored recollection of a first fishing expedition or a first fish or anything of that sort. Fishing and hunting were simply things that men and boys in my family did, and sometimes women and girls as well, often to the neglect of more germane pursuits. While the hunting involved hazardous weapons and thus came later, the fishing went on from the time you could hold a small pole in your pudgy hand and could bear without wailing to watch somebody impale a worm or grasshopper on your hook.

No one that I remember among my kinsmen used a fly rod; a good heavy bass-casting rig was the standard thing to have, with a Pflueger Supreme or Shakespeare President reel as its basis if you could afford one. But an old doctor and a couple of other family friends did fly-fish a little, and from the age of nine or ten onward I supplemented such information as they could give me through reading outdoors magazines in which, in that era, all fish seemed to be huge vicious creatures that would tear your arm from its socket if given half a chance. Then at some point I spent some money earned selling the Saturday Evening Post on a floppy Horrocks-Ibbotson bamboo fly rod, a primitive brass reel, and an untapered, sticky, oiled-silk fly line whose weight was wrong for the rod’s action and that smelled like old yellow slickers.

I got these items at a discount through the friendly influence of a gaunt and quirkish Depression drifter in his forties called for some reason Hackberrry Stolz, who for a spell eked out a living of sorts as the tackle and gun repairman at Waggoner and Daniel, a leading sporting goods store in Fort Worth then, where I and some others like me spent hours each week smudging the glass showcases with our noses while we studied reels and lures and other treasures beyond our short financial reach. Hack was fond of kids, or fond at any rate of expatiating to them in his abundant spare time upon that topic that drew them within his orbit. I suppose I was a good listener, for he did me that favor with the fly outfit and used to speak of taking me fishing with him, though when we finally did get out together it was I who took him in a way.

He had a little outboard motor and a short tippy cartop boat, but no car to top with it, and once I prevailed on my father to get up at four in the morning and transport me and Hack and this craft out to Lake Mineral Wells, which was supposed to be a hot fishing spot in those days. Hack caught a four-and-a-half pound bass and a couple of smaller ones while trolling with a Crawdad plug, and expressed himself gratified. I didn’t catch anything and neither did Papa, who could not swim and had chosen to fish from the bank when he took a good look at the boat in the water and heard its owner say, rather belatedly, that no, he’d never had three people in it before but was sure it would hold them all right.

In his tackle box there was a pint of bootleg whiskey (I think this must have been about 1931, the year before Repeal), which he finished of on the ride home that afternoon, flinging the bottle toward the borrow ditch and breaking into a snatch of “My Darling Nellie Gray.” Then he began shaking his fist out the window and shouting at drivers who passed us, considering them reckless. “Oh, you pissant!” he would shriek. “Oh, you horse’s butt!” My father, not at all a stuffy man but decorous in the old way, had very little to say on this drive, and as I recall we engaged in no further outings of that sort. Hack and I stayed friends, though, and I guess I learned a good bit from him before, rather soon thereafter, he drifted on in his restless course toward other regions and other acolytes.

I didn’t learn much, however, from that ill-matched fly-fishing outfit he helped me to get wholesale. Spurred on by my reading and by bullheadedness, I flailed away with it on stock tanks beyond the edge of town and on the sluggish Trinity West Fork, whose bottomland was our main poaching ground in those days, and eventually got to the point where I could slap a fly ungracefully on the water 20 or 25 feet from where I stood if I didn’t hang it on a willow or bush with my back cast, as I usually did. I even caught a good many uncautious perch with it and finally a small bass or two. But it was discouraging work, and for serious fishing with adults I relied on a bait-casting rod and plugs.

Or maybe that dismal rig did teach me something after all, because I remember that when I first got to use a decent balanced fly outfit, just before or during the war, the smooth and rhythmic certainty with which it laid out a long line, checked it in the air, and dropped it gently on the water, had a feel of old familiarity for me. It wasn’t familiarity at all, of course. It was merely what I’d been looking for all that time.

Not long afterward I discovered trout in the mountains of New Mexico, and that was when fly-rod addiction truly set in. It has been with me ever since, though feebly at times during periods of travel or living in cities or absorption with country life and work, to the point that in recent years I have fallen into the habit of using non-fly tackle for Texas fishing about as often as not. Of late, though, for reasons I do not pretend to understand, the addiction has started coming back strong. In a world as fraught with mighty evils and fears and causes as ours is, this fascination of mine with trying to hoodwink fish in a particular fussy way does make me a bit uneasy, I confess. But there it is.

Texas, alas, is not trout country, and in general even those Texans who spend winter evenings tying trout flies and reading about the Rockies’ Madison and Yellowstone and Gunnision rivers, and about more venerably renowned Northeastern and British streams like the Beaverkill and the Test, base their ordinary fishing on what they can get at.

In the hinterland parts of the state the assortment of species they can usually get at with a fly rod doesn’t exactly smother them with choices. By and large the available game fish — those predatory types that will dependably assault artificial lures of some sort — are largemouth black bass, white or sand bass, striped bass, crappie, and a number of small sunfish most often lumped under the designations perch or bream (pronounced “brim”). In terms of size and strength none of the others approach the great stripers, ocean fish originally, a landlocked breed of which has been transplanted to some reservoirs in the recent past and is doing nicely there. But they tend to hand out in the depths of the lakes and are caught mainly by specialists trolling for them with heavy tackle and elaborate auxiliary rigs to force big treble-hooked plugs far down into the water. Neither are white bass and crappie easily accessible to a fly-rodder most of the time, though when they are, as on spawning runs up rivers that feed into the reservoirs, they can make for good seasonal sport.

This leaves the black bass and the bream, the old familiar native species in pursuit of which most of use prairie dwellers first learned a little about fishing. Or rather we learned on the bream and eventually, I suppose, knew enough to catch some bass, whose greater size and moodier habits and higher rank in the regard of our elders made them the standard achievement.

And despite stripers and other novelties, black bass are still the standard around these parts, as throughout much of the country, for the proliferation of reservoirs has hugely expanded their habitat and the importation of new strains has much increased their average size, the current Texas record being, I believe, around fifteen pounds, an unheard-of weight in my youth except in Florida. Furthermore a new and effective and highly American methodology, involving electronic depth finders and fish finders and, along with other lures, weighted soft-plastic worms bumped along the bottom where blacks forgather during cold or hot weather, has developed for catching them in recent years and has been cannily promoted and exploited.

They are also fine fly fish sometimes, especially for a few weeks in spring and in fall when optimum water temperature, the breeding urge, or whatever causes them to cruise and feed in shallow places during the daylight hours. There they will attack live things on the water’s surface, or imitations of live things, and the furious splashing strike of a mature bass at a cork-bodied or clipped-hair fly-rod bug that is being twitched along in representation, one hopes, of something good to eat has a startling effect that is equaled by only a few other things that happen in the blood sports, among them the rise of a covey of quail before a pointing dog, expected but nonetheless heart-stopping.

Bass can often be taken thus with surface flies in the warm months too, at dusk or at daybreak or at night. And in the past couple of decades or so some experimental fly-rodders have worked out ways of using sinking lines and big streamer flies to reach them in deeper water and take them at times almost as well as the plastic worm crowd can, and have learned to cover the water more thoroughly through the use of enormously long “double line haul” casts.

Until recently this new knowledge had mainly passed me by, and I doubt I’ll be changing or improving radically as a fly-fisherman at this point, even though I do intend to have a try at some of the new techniques and I don’t expect I’ll ever quit going after bass with the long rod when I can. But it lacks the delicacy of standard trout fishing, primarily because of the tackle you have to use, and this in turn has to do not with any greater size and power that bass possess but with the flies themselves. Without wanting to wax too technical here — a danger of the sport, as non-fishing readers will already have discerned — I will note that bass don’t have that great big mouth for nothing. They prefer to take their nourishment in hunks, as anyone knows who has dissected their stomachs during the cleaning process and found therein birds, baby squirrels, young catfish six or eight inches long, but very few if any of the diminutive insects that delight the trout man’s heart. Hence, to be attractive to them, flies usually need to have good bulk, with consequent increased weight and air resistance. This means inevitably that the line with which you lay those flies on the water, up to fifty or sixty feet or more away from your ritualistic self, has got to be a thick one whipped through the air with a powerful, relatively heavy rod. It’s true that similar tackle is needed for Atlantic salmon and steelheads and Alaskan rainbows and other sizable salmonids, as well as for taking saltwater species on a fly, but that’s mainly because of the quarry’s great strength, which needs what authority you can muster.

Bass water is therefore no place for lovely tiny flies and a number four line and a lithe slim wisp of a rod that feels like a long and springy extra finger of your hand, things that are part of the charm that fly-fishing can have and a very fine part too. I don’t remember ever getting a charley horse under my shoulder blade on a trout stream, not even in a long day’s fishing, but I’ve had some good ones when after bass. And, I admit, have considered them fair enough payment, when the bass were hitting.

Happily there do exist some fish in our inland Texas waters that allow the owner and cherisher of light — and bantamweight trout tackle to do a little more with it than admire it by the fireside in winter and utilize it three or four times a year in the Mountain States if he’s lucky. These are the bream, or perch, or whatever you may want to call them — the bluegills and goggle-eyes and redears and pumpkin-seeds and other flat-bodied sunfish that abound in all our lakes and streams and in farm and ranch stock tanks. They run small — anything over about half a pound is very good bream indeed in Texas, and in some ponds where the population has gotten out of whack with the food supply, most of them you catch are closer to the size of a silver dollar, if anyone now remembers that departed honest coin. But in compensation for want of hugeness, bream are voracious consumers of insects and small aquatic life and are thus quite pleasantly suited to the light fly rod and to those who like to wield it.

Trout they are not, and a part of the ritual usually goes by the board when you sally forth after them, unless you simply want to observe it. Besides being mainly much larger, trout are finicky creatures, and that is the chief reason for much of the ancient ritual itself: the study of currents to avoid drag on the line and fly after a cast, the alertness for hatches of mayflies or caddis flies or other favored bugs, the solemn consultations with other anglers as to the flies and manner of presentation that seem to be working best on a given day astream. Bream, on the other hand, don’t truly give a damn and most of the time are pretty unselective. If they’re feeding at all, practically any pattern of fly will do as long as its not too big for their mouths and you put it where they can see it, without having frightened them beforehand by clomping along the bank or hugely disturbing the water.

Nevertheless some skill is required, and certain wily fly-fishers do take more and better bream than others. In most water this is less a matter of entomological and hydrological know-how of the troutish sort than it is of reading the water for likely spots, casting accurately and softly so as not to startle the prey, locating heftier specimens by the manner of their rising, getting a fly down deep when they’re not hitting near the top, finding the most attractive manner and speed of retrieve, detecting and responding to underwater strikes, and so on. There is thus enough to think about to keep the illusion of ritual intact, along with the near-certainty of catching fish.

Quite edible fish they are also, even the silver dollars, which with the most perfunctory of scalings and guttings can be dunked in cornmeal and fried crisply whole and devoured whole too, bones and fins and head and all. The delicate flesh of the bigger ones is hard to distinguish from that of the closely related crappie, for me the most savory freshwater fish in our region. Nor do you have to worry about the morality of taking as many as you think you need. Since bream breed as recklessly as do people, ponds especially are often so overstocked that it is absolutely virtuous to take away all of them you can catch, in contrast with current practice on many popular trout waters, where authorities quite wisely are encouraging or requiring a catch-and-release approach among anglers to stave off catastrophe.

I sometimes carry home minnow-bucketfuls of undersized sunfish, caught in some teeming tank, and dump them into our own piece of creek, which goes utterly Texas-dry every four or five summers and often needs restocking, and there they grow to good size rapidly. But nature itself does an adequate job of moving them into new water when they’re needed. In that same creek, when rains break a drouth, I’ve watched perch leaping and wriggling up a nearly vertical five-foot jet of water tumbling over the ledged cascade at the bottom end of our place, to head for newly replenished deeper pools above. And at a brand-new, raw-clay, fishless pasture tank, filled overnight by a deluge, I’ve seen tiny goggle-eyes the size of my thumbnail swimming on their sides by thousands up thin rivulets flowing across the spillway, from some older pond far down the same draw.

Maybe best of all, if you have a hidden competitive streak in your psyche, as even most ritualists do, the fly rod as often as not, in reasonably practiced hands, is a better tool for taking them than any other. Thus you can have the illusion not only of ritual but of efficiency too, in a way that you can’t with bass except under the most prime of fly conditions.

I remember from thirty years since — rather guiltily, as one remembers unfair triumphs — a spring afternoon on the Cibolo not far from Boerne, at a pretty place where white spate-water roared across a concrete low-water bridge into a deep blue pool. Big handsome bream, in bright breeding hues of yellow and red and green and blue and silver, were gathered in swarms in that pool, and seven or eight locals had gathered also, hauling out fish with poles and worms but not exceedingly fast. I knew none of them, and as soon as I showed up they switched from speaking English to German, a form of cultural barrier you’d run across from time to time in that region. It relieved me of the need to do anything but fish, and during the 45 minutes or so of my presence in their midst, using a number ten Yellow Sally and a beat-up little fiberglass trout rod, I took roughly four or five fish for every one the whole crowd of them caught. By the time I said my early auf Wiedersehen and left, dragging a tow sack heavy with bream, the atmosphere was quite thick with hostility, but I expect I left some converts to fly-fishing among them, if they recognized what my tackle was.

Except at such demonic moments, though, I’m not actually very competitive about fishing or anything else, and the times I remember with most pleasure on spring-fed Hill Country creeks like the Cibolo, the loveliest waters in the state in my opinion, are whole days spent alone or in quite good company, wading them in tennis shoes and fishing them like the trout streams they would be if they were only a few degrees colder. In that clean live water, bream and slender bass tend to behave much like trout as well, and are harder to tempt, and the ritual becomes nearly entire. Some streams in the hills have good numbers of queer, humpheaded, black and gold sunfish known as Rio Grande perch, which against a two-ounce rod can pull like veritable hogs. One that I caught in the Blanco at Wimberley weighed not much short of a pound and even managed to strip off quite a bit of line from my reel in fast water before I brought him in to turn him loose again for somebody else to catch.

Other respectable sunfish I remember clearly and affectionately too, among them a population of lively steel-blue and silver beauties that together with a lot of bottles and a few old tires inhabited some riffles beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin in the late forties, before that part of the river was damned. They had deep streamlined bodies and very slim hinder sections and long slanting blue tabs on their gills, and I’ve never seen their like elsewhere. I used to go there and fish for them in the evenings after having overdosed on freshman-theme grading, and it was a fine strange solitary place to be at twilight, with the cliff swallows that nested under the bridge wheeling and twittering and swooping at bugs, the night-hawks and bats coming out, the cars rumbling faintly far overhead, the Colorado’s clear water singing its song in the riffles, and the cool green river smell of it. They were picky, those steel-blue bream, and I had to use good trout flies on them. If I recall aright, they usually liked best a Brown Bivisible dry tied on a size twelve hook, drifted down the current without drag.

In fact, whenever I look back — and fishing like some other things often has retrospection in it for me these days as I see, in an eddy or a stone or a purl of current against some cypress knee, other streams in other times where other fish were the goal — looking back I note with more than a shade of chagrined surprise that many of my most agreeable recollections of fishing involve the lowly bream, every child’s first catch. I don’t suppose the surprise is justified, for only rarely have I lived where I could go out after trout when I wanted, and I am, God help me, a fly-fisherman by preference, and given those circumstances it’s probably true that I’ve fished with greater frequency for bream than I have for nobler species. Nevertheless this realization is rather humbling, making me seem to myself very un-Hemingwayesue and not much like Lord Grey of Fallodon either, and causing me to wonder dauntedly sometimes if, in angling as well as in some of those other things I view in retrospect, I may have fallen a bit short of growth and full achievement.

It isn’t a wonder that lasts very long, however, at least in regard to angling. Because down inside I know quite well that the fish are not the point. The manner of fishing is.

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